Washington will mark the 20th anniversary of the Salmon Recovery Act in 2019. While we’ve made great progress putting important projects on the ground, more work is needed to protect and restore habitat. To save this Pacific Northwest icon will require more from all of us–from everyday people to businesses and nonprofits to government leaders. This is the year that we must think big and take action to meet the challenges ahead.
We don’t need to tell Washingtonians what salmon mean to our state. Salmon are woven throughout our daily lives from the food we eat, to the recreation we enjoy, to the celebrations welcoming salmon home from their ocean journeys. We are not alone in our reliance. Many other species, such as our beloved orcas, need salmon for their survival.
Salmon give us their all, but we have not done as well by them. We have damaged their habitat, hindered their migration, and polluted their waters. As a result, salmon numbers have plummeted along with the local orcas and the fishing opportunities vital to so many.
Reflecting on the past 20 years, we see thousands of people across the state doing good work to right mistakes and improve the plight of salmon. These efforts have saved some salmon populations from disappearing altogether and reversed or slowed the downward decline of others. Witness Hood Canal summer chum, which are nearing recovery goals. But far too many still are not improving. To stop investing in salmon is not an option.
As we look to the future, we must think about big solutions to these big problems of human population growth, climate change, and lack of funding for recovery projects. It is critical we work together to act now. What is good for salmon ultimately will benefit every living thing in this special place we share. We can’t imagine a Washington without salmon. Can you?
The development of the West brought with it the decline of salmon. As cities and counties grew, we paved over pristine habitat, overfished, dammed rivers, hardened shorelines, and polluted the waterways. By the 1990s, the damage was undeniable.
In 1991, the federal government declared the first salmon in the Pacific Northwest endangered under the Endangered Species Act. In the next few years, 14 additional species of salmon and steelhead and 3 species of bull trout were listed as at-risk of extinction. By the end of the decade, wild salmon had disappeared from about 40 percent of their historic breeding ranges in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and California. In Washington, the numbers had dwindled so much that salmon, steelhead, and bull trout were listed as threatened or endangered in nearly three-fourths of the state.
Today, nearly 20 years later, we see that salmon recovery efforts have been instrumental in helping some species turn the corner towards recovery and have slowed the decline of several other species; however too many others remain precariously close to the brink of extinction.